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Self-Knowledge Is Not Memory-Based
Mani: Hi, James, I have received your DVDs and books, and am going through them slowly. I congratulate you on this really wonderful work to serve humanity. These are truly divinely inspired works coming through you.
I have a question that has many parts around the same point. I sometimes get answers but somehow the same questions come back again and again. Here is some background: I see directly that the only thing that I am certain of in this universe is “I am” or the intuitive understanding that “I exist” – not as an idea of something but an eternal presence that is always there, no matter what happens. Everything else is my projections.
However, it seems like I forget this understanding from time to time and fall back to identifying myself with externalities and suffer, although I wake up sooner or later. Then in hindsight I laugh at myself for my ignorance. However, when I am caught up in the melodrama and forget my basic primordial state of “I am,” I consider the melodrama as reality, participate in it, forget my true nature and suffer.
So I see directly that forgetting the basic state is cause of all suffering. But my question is: Does one ever fall back to ignorance after enlightenment?
Ram: It depends on your definition of “enlightenment.” If enlightenment is self-knowledge, then you need to know that this knowledge is not memory-based. You can forget objects that are not present, but once you know the self you cannot forget it because you are always present. Do you ever forget your name? You do not. Why? Because you are always present.
Even in the case where you have knowledge of a physical object, you do not forget what it is when it not present because the next time you see it, you know what it is. Why? Because the knowledge is firm. For example, have you ever forgotten what an automobile is? The knowledge “I am the self” is not based on what the experiencing subject – the perceiver-feeler-thinker entity – experiences because you are not a perceiver-feeler-thinker entity. This entity – okay, the person you think you are – is an object, a thought, in you, meaning awareness. So, it is good no matter what the person experiences. It is just knowledge of your nature, your identity.
If you see enlightenment as a special experience that the experiencing entity has gained, then you will definitely lose it because all experience, including the experience of the reflection of awareness in a pure mind (which the ill-informed call enlightenment), comes and goes.
But the most important point is that if you know what it means to be awareness, you will not get identified with the vasanas that arise in you and take your attention away from yourself. What does it mean to say “I am awareness?” It means that you are whole and complete. It means that you are confident that you can deal with anything that life has to offer. If you understand this, you will not let your attention be hijacked by the fears/desires that appear in you. You will not be interested in pursuing anything in the world because you are already complete. You only pursue things because you believe they will complete you. So judging by your statements, your discrimination is not perfect. When you are “enlightened,” your discrimination is perfect and you never fall away from yourself, not that this is actually possible, although that is how it seems.
I cannot be sure, but it sounds to me like you do know who you are but lack confidence in it. If you say “no” to your fears and desires backed by the understanding that you are the self, your confidence in the knowledge will grow and grow until it becomes 100 percent. Then you will never dip back into the world and suffer.
I think this situation happens because you have not realized the inherent defects in all objects. When you see that they do not deliver what they purport to deliver, your desire for them will dry up. What is your age and what kind of lifestyle do you have? Are you actively involved in the world or do you have a lot of time for contemplation?
Mani: If one falls back into ignorance, enlightenment doesn’t end suffering. If you don’t fall back into ignorance, then why did I forget my true state in the first place (before vasanas or karmic obligations took over me)?
Ram: There is no “why.” That is just the way it is. What we can say is that is that there is a way out. Once you are established as the self, you will see how ignorance works.
Mani: If enlightenment brings true freedom, then whether I suffer or not (or whether I forget my true nature or not) should depend upon me. But I only get that when I wake up or in hindsight – not when I am caught up in the melodrama. Even if it is a temporary departure from my true state, it causes enormous suffering and I have no way to escape it.
Ram: It depends on what you know, not on you. It seems to me that you have the wrong idea of who you are because you cannot “wake” up. You can have an insight into your nature but you cannot wake up – because you never slept. This “waking and sleeping” metaphor suggests to me that you think enlightenment is something that happens, something that you can maintain. It is not an experience that you can maintain. It is simply you. Do you have to do anything to be you? You don’t. So the “maintenance” is only in terms of the application of self-knowledge to the impulses arising in you that are attempting to seduce you into chasing some object. If you apply the knowledge diligently on a moment-to-moment basis, the knowledge will become steady wisdom. And at some point no more effort will be required. It is like your name: You do not have to practice saying your name every day for fear of forgetting. You are clear about who you are, so there is no effort. If you need the knowledge, it is there at your fingertips, and if you don’t, it stays in the background until it is needed.
The next problem with your understanding is revealed by your use of the word “state.” It shows that you think enlightenment is some kind of experience that the experiencing entity can gain. This is why it comes and goes.
Mani: And finally, if it is a non-dual reality (I believe it is), then does it really mean anything to say the Buddha got enlightened when millions are in ignorance?
Ram: This doubt can be resolved by understanding that the ignorance standing in the Buddha’s account can only be removed by the Buddha. If I breathe, it does not mean that you do not have to breathe. If I think a thought of green apples, a green-apple thought does not appear in your mind. If I murder a man, you are not put in jail. Enlightenment does not transfer because the individual needs to remove his or her own ignorance. Each individual formulates his or her ignorance of the self in different ways, according to his or her conditioning. And since no two individuals are conditioned the same, what applies to one does not apply to another. This confusion is brought about because the relationship between the individual and the total is unclear. It may not mean much to anyone else, but it means a lot to the Buddha. It may provide inspiration for others to seek enlightenment, but each individual has to do the work his or her self. The Christians have the same notion when they say that Christ died for our sins, that his suffering redeemed us. But it is obviously not true because suffering is alive and well.
In a non-dual reality there are no Buddhas, no enlightened beings. There is only one self with apparent ignorance or apparent knowledge. When the intellect understands that it is awareness, its ignorance disappears and, looked at from the level of maya, we say that it is a Buddha. When the knowledge is firm, you can say that he or she is enlightened.
Even the word “enlightenment” needs to be looked into because the self, you, are not enlightened nor are you unenlightened. If you want to use the enlightenment-word, it is better to define enlightenment as the hard and fast knowledge “I am the light,” i.e. awareness/being, assuming it cancels the ego as a doer and neutralizes the binding likes and dislikes.
Mani: How will one ever know whether she is enlightened?
Ram: Your desires and fears dry up. You quit seeking things.
Mani: Is the end of suffering the only indicator?
Ram: Yes. That is the proof.
Mani: If it is, then it is again a catch-22: Why do I forget my true nature from time to time and still see that I am unable to maintain my awakening forever?
Ram: As I pointed out, enlightenment is not awakening. Awakening is some kind of experience. You cannot maintain any experience. Experience is not under the control of individuals. It is produced by the whole field of existence. Enlightenment is not an experience that happens. It is just the removal of ignorance about your nature, although you could call that an experience. Go through Chapter II in my book How to Attain Enlightenment and carefully follow the logic. See if you can develop the discrimination between knowledge and experience.
Self knowledge – enlightenment – is freedom from experience and the experiencing entity. The experiencing entity, the person you think you are, is already the self under the spell of a misunderstanding. That is all. The misunderstanding needs to be removed. This does not require maintenance, except in the sense that I suggested above.
Mani: I am sorry for such a long email. I would greatly appreciate your wisdom on these very intriguing questions haunting me from my high school days.